A whole lot of music, one terrific song, and a busload of cliches about tortured artists mark AR Rahman’s debut production. 99 Songs, based on a story by Rahman and a screenplay by director Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, revolves around a musician who goes through a trial by fire before emerging pure and shiny. The title refers to the pursuit of that one tune that will stop the globe from spinning, reunite estranged lovers and bring about social revolution.
Yes, no less than revolution. This deadly earnest movie starts off in one place, heads elsewhere and finally lands up in La La Land. Despite an impressive performance by lead actor Ehan Bhat and several soulful tunes, 99 Songs is that rare beast – an uninvolving saga about the joys and healing power of music.
Jai (Ehan Bhat) is a talented singer-songwriter in love with the speech-impaired Sophie (Edilsy Vargas). Sophie’s Mafiosi-like father (Ranjit Barot) separates the happy couple, arguing that there is no money in a musical career. He’s clearly never heard of AR Rahman.
The businessman throws Jai a challenge: compose a song that will change the world. A creative funk sends Jai to Shillong, where his college buddy and drummer Polo (Tenzin Dalha) lives with his gargantuan clan. Jai also meets Sheela (Lisa Ray), described as the “jazz queen of Shillong”. Slinking about in silks and satins and often spotted with a glass of whiskey, Sheela improves Jai’s ability to read music and restores some of his confidence.
Since the movie believes in no sex, no drugs and very little rock ‘n’ roll, Sheela serves as little more than an instrument to get to the next step of the screenplay. A betrayal and an accident land Jai in an institution, far away from music and Sophie.
Flashbacks reveal Jai’s childhood and his music-hating father (Diwakar Pundir). After a tortuous reckoning, Jai finally bangs out the one track that brings about the promised social revolution as well as lifts the soundtrack: O Aashiqa, sung by Shashwat Singh and written by Navneet Virk.
The 133-minute movie’s moralistic attitude towards unruly, freewheeling musicians makes Jai a very good but also a very dull boy. The montage-heavy song sequences that resemble music videos, barely fleshed-out characters, and stretches of time-stretching exposition bloat a simple and simplistic movie about an artist reconnecting with the one thing that gives him happiness and peace.
Edilsy Vargas, playing Jai’s muse, is largely ornamental to his reawakening, wafting in and out of view whenever required. The cameos include turns by Manisha Koirala, Indian Ocean singer Rahul Ram and Ashwath Bhatt. Only Ehan Bhat and Tenzin Dalha make an impact in a movie that takes a spiritual view of music but curiously lacks soul.